The CNN-sponsored free-for-all featured some of the most combative exchanges of the campaign and came after a Democratic debate in Las Vegas last week in which the Democratic field seemed determined to play nice.
What a difference a week makes. “While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart,” Obama said to Clinton at one point.
“I was fighting against [conservative] ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor [Antoin] Rezko in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago,” Clinton replied a few minutes later, referring to a recently indicted Chicago power broker whom Obama’s law firm indirectly represented when the candidate was a young lawyer.
The debate brought out differences on a range of substantive issues, notably health care, but it also gave view to an unprecedented, undisguised stream of rancor, with Clinton and Obama attacking one another in the most personal terms of the campaign.
Clinton returned again and again to the contention that it is “difficult to get a straight answer” from Obama on the hard facts of issues, including the Iraq war. Obama called Clinton’s honesty into question, accusing her of distorting his words into a compliment of past Republican ideas, rather than the grudging admiration for past GOP political tactics he intended.
Obama also responded to a weeklong barrage from former President Bill Clinton.
“I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes,” he quipped to the former first lady.
The debate featured three candidates in different positions and with different goals. Clinton, who plans just one more day in South Carolina between today and Saturday’s primary, made her case at the cost of booing from the largely African-American audience in a state where polls show black voters shifting Obama’s way.
Obama, the hometown favorite, worked to sharpen his case against Clinton and to embrace his pioneering status without casting himself as “the black candidate.”
And Edwards, down in polls everywhere, swung occasionally at both of his rivals while trying to stay above what he called on CNN after the debate “petty bickering.”
“I respect both of my fellow candidates, but we have got to understand this is not about us personally,” Edwards said. “I was the first to come out with a universal health care plan, first to come out with a global warming plan, first — and, to the best of my knowledge, only at this point — to come out with a comprehensive, detailed plan to end poverty in America, since we are on Dr. King's day.”
The candidates’ wonkiest clash came on the question of health care, which Edwards and Clinton would make mandatory, while Obama would subsidize insurance for anyone who wants it.
Clinton and Obama rehearsed their familiar arguments on this point, but Edwards jumped into the argument unexpectedly. And also unexpectedly, after serving as Obama’s surrogate in a recent New Hampshire debate, he turned his courtroom skills to Clinton’s advantage.
“The problem with this argument is you can make exactly the same argument about Social Security,” he said of Obama’s opposition to mandatory coverage. “What George Bush says is he wants people to be able to get out of the Social Security system, choose, elect to get out of the Social Security system. Well, that's exactly what this argument is.”
The candidates also removed the sting from an issue that had just a week ago threatened to thro the contest into real bitterness: race. Asked about Toni Morrison’s famous claim that Bill Clinton was “our first black president, blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime,” Obama first offered general praise for non-racist white Southerners and was pressed for a more direct response.
“I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill's dancing abilities ... and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was, in fact, a brother,” he said to laughter and applause.
“Well, I'm sure that can be arranged,” said Clinton.
Earlier, Obama had drawn an irritated glance from Edwards when in talking about the pioneering status of the race, he called it a contest between “an African-American, and a woman ... and John.”
The debate closed with a striking reflection of the changed playing field in the GOP race: a revived Arizona Sen. John McCain, who could be a formidable general election candidate.
Edwards argued that his Southern background would give him the ability to run a national campaign against a strong Republican. Clinton argued that she could contest McCain on his strength, national security, while Obama said he would best be able to end “fearmongering” on that subject.
“Who will be tough enough and strong enough? And who can compete against John McCain in every place in America?” Edwards asked.